ONE OF US HAS A BROKEN HEART, ONE OF US MUST HAVE SEEN THIS COMING, ONE OF US WONDERS HOW LONG HE HAS FELT THIS WAY
Treacy means well, and Nina knows that, but it is best to ignore any of her loving husband’s more inane ideas until they cannot be resisted any longer. No sooner have they returned from their trip to Bodrum—one astounding hotel suite is blending into another, the world is too available to them—than Treacy comforts himself against the dreaded threat of winter by planning the conversion of one of their guest bathrooms into a private hammam, the most opulent part of which is not the intricately mosaicked floor but the expanse, half a volleyball court’s worth of Turkish marble shining like fresh lamb fat.
Treacy spends so much time in the hammam that Nina has the unlikely fear—given his amazing size—that by Christmas he will be the size of a hunt jockey. One Sunday morning early in December, she is trying to sleep late but can’t, with the noise Treacy is making as he prepares his bath—accompanying this, as is his wont, with the usual kind of commentary.
“We need to mark the occasion,” he says. “What about champagne? We must have some. That would be a nice touch. No, we drank all of it.”
Nina calls to him from the bedroom. “What occasion is this?”
There is no answer. While she gets herself ready in her own bathroom—the temperature in the hammam is too extreme for her to bear—Nina looks out of the window at their garden, which runs all the way to the mouth of Bulloch Harbour, buffered only by some comically sharp rocks. The only reason she would go out there on a wintery day like today would be for the widescreen view of the house itself: the imposing slate roof, the educated curve of the shingle sweeping the eye along in what seems like a spontaneous fashion—whereas the property itself is as straightforward and imposing as a small mental hospital.
Nina joins Treacy to discuss breakfast—opening the hammam’s heavy door with a jerk. He is in there somewhere, naked but mostly obscured by steam like an anguished portraitist has changed his mind and is trying to paint over him at last minute. Nina stands there to acclimatise herself and she is able to locate him by his breathing, which is unmistakeable—little expressions of shock, one after another, as if he is eavesdropping on a salacious conversation but is being simultaneously sworn to secrecy.
“I’m picturing two boiled eggs. Toast, no crusts.”
“There is no bread,” she says.
Being literal is Nina’s most powerful weapon in dealing with her husband. And it is as well that she is experienced in turning a blind eye to sights like Treacy licking his own sweat off his nose. Nina’s seen that kind of thing before; his tongue chasing that elusive droplet—a bubble before it is blown. His sweat has the consistency of syrup and, whenever she tastes it, comes in the most peculiar flavours—cherry and orange well as the standard beef.
Now that Nina finds Treacy in the hammam, his face seems rinsed of all worry and he looks alert and amused, not a dramatic change from his usual demeanour but significant enough. He is tapping out an imaginary piano routine, a kind of jive, on the bench next to him, delicately and spontaneously—she can tell from his breathing—so that he is ignoring another pea-sized drop of sweat that, too late, just as he notices it falls to the ground in apparent slow-motion.
It is not Treacy’s fault that it is unusual for Nina to think of her husband of twelve years naked—and resembling, she can’t deny it, a damp ghost with dancing feet. It is so much easier to picture Treacy in his signature outfit of navy pajamas with white piping and mother-of-pearl buttons—casual garb that he has professionally laundered and starched like he is on call for a military parade. On his lapel he occasionally wears a Maltese asterisk that has been mistaken for the Legion of Honour but actually came from an antique dealer in Basel. This isn’t to say Treacy is a pristine man—Nina could go on about the malicious smells, his protein farts, the pubic hair left in the sink after he has urinated in it. His hair, usually gleaming with pomade, and swept into the grey-tinged quiff of an aging rockabilly—though Bach and Purcell are much more to his liking—is now salty with sweat and there under his belly his penis lolls around like a plump roll-up cigarette. But who is Nina to talk—still wrapped faithfully in her towel, her entire character revealed by the way she is gripping it.
Treacy seems to notice this of course—he hoists himself to his feet and takes Nina’s hand and releases the towel in almost the same movement.
“Let me see you properly,” he says. This is how Treacy usually speaks to Nina, as if he is the judge in a pet-show.
Nina is anxious to get back to her own bath but she stays where she is—as she always does when he asks her. It is Treacy who laughs first, when Nina climbs onto the marble bench like an odalisque, which is not her at all.
He pumps some muguet lotion into his hands—it is kept in a cabinet for her visits to the hammam—and guides her onto her belly, presumably so the lotion can be foamed onto her back. Nina attempts to watch Treacy as he works, as you would some interpretive dance you don’t understand. Listening to him burble along—he is describing something he has heard on the radio: a piece of music recorded in her home town on Germany’s Baltic coast—she finds a way to make herself comfortable on the unforgiving marble so that she can not only tolerate being in there with him but enjoy it. Nina has all his attention as usual. Treacy is massaging her with such courteously-sustained ferocity, twisting his wrists as he rubs the lotion around so that she is afforded a number of different sensations—knuckles and pudgy fingertips to the paw-ness of his palms.
“Do you think we should move house?” he says. “No. We live in the best house in Dublin.”
Treacy is inexhaustible—and Nina is overwhelmed, wondering how she can interrupt him; because where they live seems to her like a luxuriously appointed backwater. It’s not that Sandycove doesn’t see its fair share of visitors, it does. But so often you come across tourists—hoping to glimpse a rock-star’s driveway—who don’t know why they’ve bothered. Their village is spoken of as sought-after, yet the light is nothing special and there are better places to swim than the Forty Foot. Most of all it is the winds that commandeer Nina’s thoughts—fanned all the way from her beloved Baltic to their flat, industrial-coloured bay.
Treacy seems to be relaxing fully and Nina isn’t far behind, struggling to stay awake. She has been holding onto the sides of the bench but one by one Treacy peels her fingers away so that she is lying there without supporting herself and, somehow, she feels free from concern about how she looks. Occasionally life takes Nina by surprise like that. ⌂
She awakes alone and by the time she has left the hammam it feels like she’s been hit in the head with a hammer. But she doesn’t know what delights her more, the unexpected rest or how her falling asleep in there might seem to Treacy—should he see it as it appeared to her—and how it will be between them, given his behaviour the night before.
Treacy is forever concocting reasons—other than the truth, which is that they have better things to do—why they hardly make love any more. Usually, what reassurance Nina has to offer him comes in the form of acquiescence. As long as he doesn’t spatter her with hot oil, sex is something she rarely considers but for which she is always prepared—Nina sees availability as her responsibility. It doesn’t matter what she thinks when she looks down upon herself in the bath or wherever, because for the same reason as Treacy initiates lovemaking at irregular-though-predictable intervals, Nina’s desires develop more or less in proportion with her husband’s. Treacy must know it all, he has to—how tired and unhappy Nina has been, that she was surprised they had made love after such a long gap, on the night they had. And that it is just as well for them both that it was a surprise because otherwise it would not have happened at all.
Treacy said that he found her so beautiful but there’s no way he still means it—not any more. He trembled in her arms nevertheless, his buttocks still as cold and white as a sink from his swim, his breath on her face, the taste of tonic water on it, his eyes glowing like exposed elements in a way they hadn’t in some time. This aroused Nina—the very thought that something had brought on an unexpected surge in him, as it had it in her.
When she leaves the hammam, Nina finds Treacy lying in the bath she ran for herself earlier.
“That’s mine,” she says.
“You were asleep,” he says, cha-cha-cha-ing underwater to a polka on the radio.
Nina had not expected to fall asleep in the hammam—she had wondered as she slipped off if he would consider this rude. “Why didn’t you wake me?”
Now, as Nina considers their marriage—all that has gone before and the moment of intimacy that has just taken place and the one that took place the night before—it is like persuading the drip back up the tap. For the time being they are leaving captivity behind, their lonely bed, their muffled being and the unreachable ladder to heaven. And the real questions have only begun; always about love, Treacy’s problems with love—problems Nina solves by ignoring.
“Doesn’t matter,” she says. “It’s still my bath.”
“But it looked so good.” ⌂
In the morning, Nina hears her husband leave—of course, it is for good. She hears Treacy being quiet. Something arrived from Brooks Brothers and he is carefully packing the pajamas, still in their wrappers, only to forget to unpick the pins. This will cause Treacy problems if on his trip he plans on going through airport security—Nina thinks of that—but this, or his eventual whereabouts, do not concern her anymore.
Treacy is gone and now she is alone, and afraid—but not afraid in any of the ways that she has expected. Soon Nina can resume the kind of life she has always intended for herself and soon she will no longer hold Treacy to blame because she has never known what that is.
First thing in the morning, the hammam has a dirty, pond-like smell. But the water-pressure is so strong that each of the rapidly-filling baths resembles a basin of milk. Nina undresses so that she is completely naked and forces herself into the mildest of the pools with a stifled sigh. A festive splash or two demonstrates what fun she is having— her paleness is somehow harmonious with the marble. The room is creamy with steam and now she is crouching in the very hot bath, lazily stirring the steaming water with one finger whilst bouncing her buttocks on the surface, childishly. She butterflies about with no apparent sense of purpose, allowing another few minutes to pass before admitting that using the hammam so soon has been a mistake. ⌂
Andrew Meehan has been a winner of the Cúirt Literary Festival’s New Writing Award as well as featuring in journals such as South Circular, The Stinging Fly and The Moth. His most recent fiction can be found in the Faber anthology TOWN & COUNTRY and an essay entitled DIFFICULT PEOPLE features in the new journal Winter Pages.